In our principles textbook, Tyler and I open our chapter on price discrimination with the following:
After months of investigation, police from Interpol swooped down on an international drug syndicate operating out of Antwerp, Belgium. The syndicate had been smuggling drugs from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania into the port of Antwerp for distribution throughout Europe. Smuggling had netted the syndicate millions of dollars in profit. The drug being smuggled? Heroin? Cocaine? No, something more valuable, Combivir. Why was Combivir, an anti-AIDS drug, being illegally smuggled from Africa to Europe when Combivir was manufactured in Europe and could be bought there legally?
The answer is that Combivir was priced at $12.50 per pill in Europe and, much closer to cost, about 50 cents per pill in Africa. Smugglers who bought Combivir in Africa and sold it in Europe could make approximately $12 per pill, and they were smuggling millions of pills.
Instead of smuggling the drugs to Europe, it’s also possible to send the European and American patients abroad. Gilead’s Solvadi, for example, is a very effective drug used to treat hepatitis C. In the United States a course of treatment costs about about $85,000 but due to an agreement between Gilead and generic manufactures in developing countries, in Egypt, India and much of the developed world it can be had for less than $1000. In an excellent piece, Four Reasons Drugs are Expensive, of Which Two are False, Jack Scannell illustrates the battle between arbitrageurs and pharmaceutical companies:
[The price difference] raises dreams of pharmaceutical tourism: “Enjoy a 12 week Grand Tour, where you can gaze at the awesome pyramids and the inscrutable Sphinx of Giza, explore the treasures of Tutankhamen, gasp at the wonders of Luxor, while basking in the sustained virologic response you can only dream of buying in the US.” Some may dream, but Gilead got there already and put its corporate towels on the sun loungers. Egyptians must prove residency to get Sovaldi. Tourists need not apply.
To prevent resale Gilead requires ID and it labels and tracks every bottle sold abroad:
[Patient IDs] will be used to put an identifying barcode on the bottles they receive with their name and other info. Not only can the code be used to guarantee only residents of the country get the drugs…the provisions require that patients then return a bottle to get a new bottle and allows them to get only one bottle of their prescription at a time, even though allowing them to get multiple bottles could “ease the burden on patients and health providers,” MSF says.
Médecins Sans Frontières are outraged by these restrictions but, as Tyler and I explain, the alternative is no sales in developing countries or one world-price and you can be sure that if there’s one world-price that price will be the US price and not the Egyptian price.